If you haven’t read “Iceland Part I” (or you thought it was so awesome you want to read it again) check it out here.
Day two started out slowly with us sleeping in till 9am. We slept 12 straight hours, probably for the first time since Logan was born. It was perhaps the highlight of the trip. This was going to be a big day. There are a number of worthy sites in the southeastern quadrant of Iceland, so we were going to try to drive as far east along Highway 1 as we could get before sunset. Originally the plan was to secure lodging wherever we wound up, but the latest forecast forced a change in plans.
The ability to see the Northern Lights hinges primarily on two factors, cloud cover and auroral activity. The latter is hard to predict (although NASA’s NPOES satellite provides near-real-time data that can be used to make dubious predictions). As for the former, Iceland’s weather service provides detailed cloud cover predictions in 3-hour increments. Obsessive analysis of these predictions told us we needed to spend the night in Kirkjubaejarklaustur, about 150Km west of our day’s eastern turn-around point, so we would be much more hurried than we wanted.
The upside to our late start was that we could finally enjoy the landscape around Reykjavik, which we had only previously experienced in darkness. The landscape in Iceland is stark, or perhaps even bleak at times, but it is always interesting. Hwy 1 winds and twists through rolling hills, and you are never more than a few minutes from a beautiful waterfall, striking rock formation, or sparkling glacier.
We passed a number of amazing waterfalls (more to come on this) and glaciers. As an avid rock-starer, the highlight of the drive for me was an amazing rhyolite rock arch I spotted along the highway just east of Kalfafell. We didn’t have time to stop, so I planned to stop on the way back to hike up there and assess the rock quality, but I failed to note its location and we didn’t find it on the way back. I hiked up to another cliff a ways further west and it seemed like it would be climbable, but would require an adventurous spirit and a good bit of cleaning.
After Kalfafell comes the enormous Skeidararsandur, which is basically an enormous (20 mile wide) sand flat covered by a spaghetti web of rivers delivering Vatnijokull’s runoff to the sea. The sand in Iceland is all black, and its an unreal setting, with visibility for miles and miles. The amazing thing about the glaciers to me is how accessible they are. I’ve spent plenty of time on some big glaciers and ice caps in Alaska and Canada, but it always seems like it takes a mini-expedition just to get to them. The glaciers in Iceland are everywhere, and its eerie to drive along a busy highway, passing almost suburban neighborhoods, with enormous seas of ice in the background.
The first objective for the day was Skaftafell National Park, gateway to the mind-boggling Vatnijokull (‘Water Glacier’). The term “sea of ice” gets bandied about, but this thing is bigger than the state of Delaware, and its omnipresent to anyone traveling in this part of Iceland. Its more visible than the nearby Atlantic Ocean, and almost seems bigger.
There’s a lot to see in Skaftafell, but at the top of our list was the remarkable Svartifoss (“black falls”) and the turf house village of Sel. If we had time, we were also hoping to set foot on Vatnijokull for no particular reason. The hike to Svartifoss was nice; our first real exercise in several days, and provided gobsmacking views of the nearby glacier tongues. Sel was completely unspoiled, and all the doors were open allowing use to poke in and out of the houses and underground stables. The barren landscape provided a real appreciation for the courage and perseverance of the early Viking settlers.
We jogged the short path to the glacier, and had a fun time routefinding through the gnarled moraine to reach the ice. I was champing at the bit to get to Hnappavellir, Iceland’s premier sport climbing destination, so we snapped a couple pics and headed back to the car.
It was a bit of an adventure getting to the cliff. This is a summer crag (frrankly, every crag in Iceland is a summer crag). I didn’t even know if we would be able to climb, but we have a lot experience visiting distant crags at the totally wrong time, so I thought we would have a good chance. The most pressing problem was the swampy nature of the surrounding fields. You could see countless puddles glistening in the sun, and I was not looking forward to driving down the sketchy, soaked-mud roads that lead to the crag. Fortunately the west end of the cliff is near an old air strip, which has a nice gravel road we could take to get within a 100 damp yards of the cliffline.
The first crux was to leap across the narrow creek, then we had to hop across the marshy field. I devised a clever scheme to leap between raised tufts of grass, which resulted in totally soaking both of my feet. Fortunately this particular cliff sector sits up on a small rise so the ground under the routes was dry.
This sector only has seven established routes, and it looked like they were all wet to some degree, but a couple were mostly dry. I started on a brilliant 5.11, which started on a slight overhanging up amazing, hidden, sculpted water pocket jugs. The climbing was super fun with gymnastic long reaches and heel hooks between huge jugs. Every time things were about to get tricky a seemingly shallow hold would reveal a sinker jug. Next I tried a cool-looking 5.12 arete. This one was pretty wet, and I had to avoid a lot of holds to keep my hands dry. Not as good as the previous line but still fun and cerebral.
We still had one major objective another 50km down the road, so with light snow falling we packed it in. I would have loved to climb more at this intriguing place, but we were clearly here in the wrong season, and we didn’t really have the time to stay longer anyway. This is one of those crags that just has a nice vibe. Basking in the sun, with a nice grassy base; its just a great hang, and throw in really fun climbing on great rock and it all adds up to a great experience. I hope to have an oportunity to return here (in the summer!) some day.
“Jokulsarlon” translates to Glacier Lagoon, and this is one of the coolest spots in Iceland. Its a small lake situated at the toe of the Breidamerkur glacier tongue, with a short river at the south end flowing a few hundred yards directly into the Atlantic Ocean. The lake is full of beautiful sculpted icebergs, and we were fortunate to arrive just before sunset.
My favorite part of Jokulsarlon was watching the icebergs flow into the ocean. It really brought home the “tip of the iceberg” metaphor, as seeming small blocks of ice would constantly high-center on the river bed, creating temporary heaving ice dams. When the bigger swells hit the ice blocks would break free and continue their journey to the sea.
The nearby beach was littered with ice blocks of all sizes, creating some outstanding photo opportunities. I convinced Kate to stand on one of the flat icebergs nearest the waterline so that it would look like she was in the ocean when the next wave came in. This worked out a little too well as the next wave was a doozy, and it looked for a while like she would have to wade through the icy sea to get back.
Next we headed to our hotel in Kirkjabaejarklaustur. Long story short, we stayed up for hours and never saw the Northern Lights (though we did see some amazing stars). It was completely clear, and we could see a really faint glow to the northeast, but that was it. According to NASA if we had been about 100 miles further north it would have been brilliant. We had one night left to accomplish our primary goal. Would we be so lucky?? Tune in next week to find out!